Fickle Facebook demotes news in another blow to publishers

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's announcement last night that content from family and friends will be given priority over published news is one more bad episode in a vexed on-again, off-again relationship between the platform giant and serious journalism.

 

As a business, Facebook has long been indifferent to the collateral damage its explosive advertising growth has inflicted on the ad base for all sorts of news enterprises.

 

As a partner to publishers, Facebook has been notorious for changing the algorithmic rules of the game on a whim, hoarding data and declining to pick up any of the cost to publishers of reporting stories from which it profits.

 

For journalists, the big reveal that Zuckerberg just isn't that into us should not be surprising. He said as much in a conference call discussion with analysts in November, which I wrote about. Connecting people (the mission of Facebook) is better done through individual exchanges, he said then. Last night's action completes the thought.

 

"You mean he thinks that baby pictures are more important than facts about what's happening in the world?" an incredulous young colleague asked this morning.

 

Well, yes.

 

Zuckerberg's brief against the recent prominence of the news feed (along with other "public content" from businesses and brands) has three related parts as I read him:

  • He thinks the news is too contentious with clamorous competing claims.
  • A heavy dose of news is thus a negative experience, while Facebook wants time on its site to be, on balance, positive and optimistic.
  • A couple of years of trying to police false content has been frustrating and embarrassing to the company and its self-image. Better to minimize harm (to Facebook) by featuring less of that kind of thing.

The damage to publishers will be distributed unequally. Those that rely on Facebook as their primary source of traffic will suffer the most. Those that pivoted to video, back when Facebook was paying selected publishers for content early last year, may regret the investment as Aunt Jennifer's cute iPhone videos take precedence.

 

However, smart publishers have been getting ahead of the game, cultivating Google News or the newer Apple news feed among many social media alternatives. A number bailed on Instant Articles, a Facebook offering to speed load times and give published content wider exposure.

 

Also let's not overstate. Newshounds can still request a prominent and full news feed. And at least, in theory, Facebook may expand efforts in the hard task of deciding which outlets are reliable enough to be featured and which should be judged bogus and removed.

 

First in my e-mail inbox was this from Financial Times CEO John Ridding (where the work day begins early):

As a long-standing publisher of quality journalism the FT welcomes moves to recognize and support trusted and reliable news and analysis. But a sustainable solution to the challenges of the new information ecosystem requires further measures — in particular, a viable subscription model on platforms that enables publishers to build a direct relationship with readers and to manage the terms of access to their content.

Without that — as the large majority of all new online advertising spend continues to go to the search and social media platforms — quality content will no longer be a choice or an option. And that would be the worst outcome for all.

I asked David Chavern, CEO of the News Media Alliance for a comment on the impact on the U.S. news industry, and he had a similar take to Ridding's:

I think that news is going to remain highly popular on Facebook because people will always want to know about the world and their communities. This change does highlight, however, the power of Facebook to decide (and alter) the kinds of information that people are exposed to. It is an incredible power that carries incredible responsibilities. 

Our core asks of Facebook — including a subscription model — remain the same.

Emily Bell,  director of the Tow-Knight Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, saw potential as well as problems, telling the Wall Street Journal:

“Facebook has an enormous amount of power and agency when it comes to deciding if publishers will thrive or not thrive … (Rating some posts as trustworthy) is not going to benefit everybody, but it is a move that adds some clarity to what was a cloudy and disingenuous position from Facebook — that all content should be treated equally,"
The leaders of Politifact (Aaron Sharockman) and the International Fact-Checking Network (Alexios Mantzarlis) spoke at Poynter's annual National Advisory Board meeting this morning. Each said that they felt they were making gradual progress partnering with Facebook on news verification initiatives and would continue those.

In the short run, Facebook may face some loss of traffic and a slowing of its advertising growth. (Its shares were trading down about 4 percent midday).

But in Zuckerberg's view, a return to more of the platform's original family and friends orientation will be good for users and also make business sense.

I would entertain the hope too that having partly exiled news as too much trouble, Zuckerberg and his executive team may change their minds before too long and look to rebuild the publishing connection.
 
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story dropped a quote from Emily Bell. It has been restored.

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